Letter: Don’t drop the ball on Iraq

By on November 25, 2009

We cannot afford to take our eyes off of Iraq as we focus more on Afghanistan. If we leave before a stable, functioning government and society have developed, we risk losing not only Iraq but all of the Middle East, including Afghanistan, to extremist and anti-U.S. forces.

Our team first traveled to Iraq in 2006 on a C-130 military aircraft, wearing personal body armor and helmets, and using an aggressive landing approach to avoid potential small arms fire.

Any movement outside the safe area, or “green zone,” required a High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) convoy, with each vehicle carrying three military personnel for every two civilians. The Iraqi soldiers appeared lethargic and wore mismatched uniforms; and of their six HMMWVs, four were broken and none were fully armored.

Three years later, our team was flying to Iraq on a commercial airline. While getting around is not the same as traveling down Interstate 90, and still requires an armed security escort in bullet-proof suburbans, the improvement in security is obvious. Throughout Baghdad, we saw Iraqi checkpoints manned by HMMWVs nearly every mile. The soldiers and police were dressed in new, pressed uniforms and their equipment appeared to be well-maintained.

Overall, the security situation on the ground has greatly improved over the course of my 11 trips into Iraq. However, there continues to be random acts of violence throughout the country—acts intended to destabilize the Iraqi government—and are not necessarily targeted at Coalition forces.

Clearly, only time will tell if the government and security forces of Iraq are up to the challenge of providing for the safety and security of their own citizens.

After spending so much time on the ground in Iraq, I am able to do little more than raise a few issues and share my personal impressions. But I believe my observations are consistent with the current overall assessment of the situation in Iraq. Those observations suggest a couple of general policy prescriptions.

First, U.S. and Coalition forces have hundreds of projects underway throughout Iraq, including governance assistance efforts, economic and educational programs, and agricultural and industrial support, just to name a few. These programs must be seen to conclusion or handed off responsibly to the Iraqi government or to international non-governmental organizations. Our assistance to the people of Iraq must not be left to atrophy.

Second, how we continue to support Iraq is being, and will continue to be, watched by the world. While it is up to the Iraqi people to govern themselves, we have a moral (and very practical) obligation to continue to assist in the development of that country. How we do this will give our allies confidence in, or reason to question, our commitments to them.

The hard work of U.S. and Coalition forces has put us in a position to move forward positively in Iraq. Our nation’s interests still most definitely remain at stake; we cannot drop the ball now.

Mark Vargas
St. Charles
14th Congressional District